Symposium for Professional Wine Writers: the good and the bad

The Apple gang at SPWW

Wine writers writing.

The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers is three and a half days of full immersion in wine and writing for better or worse. It’s not a baptism exactly, but it can change your outlook in the same way that an oyster’s irritation can make a pearl.

In my case, the irritation makes for opinions. I left this, my third year in attendance, with some serious qualms about part of what we did. I also left with about 14 bottles of wine (no longer fit for carrying on so they were shipped back), a slightly sore foot and some deep convictions deepened. The event is put on by Meadowood, the Napa Valley Vintners and CIA Greystone.

I assume most of you reading this weren’t there so I’m going to put the trash talking up front. For one, the session on ethics was something of a clusterfuck. Most legacy media (newspapers and magazines) draw a bright line between making money and telling stories, but we lowly wine bloggers wear all the hats so it’s harder to make those firm delineations.  Some bloggers accept samples (I don’t). Some bloggers take junkets (I don’t). A few writers cross back and forth between working for wineries and writing about wine, which in any other line of journalistic endeavor would be fatal (I work for a Maryland winery Boordy Vineyards, pouring their wines at tastings but consider this fully disclosed right now).

But, remember, we said “wine writing,” not “wine journalism.” Bruce Schoenfeld said the best thing about a wine writer’s role, which is that we shouldn’t be concerned with the success or failure of the wine industry. Schoenfeld is the wine editor for Travel and Leisure. It is to be hoped that this discussion is retired after this year. By the way, 16 of the writers in attendance had their symposium expenses paid by a winery, although the fellowships came with no obligation to write. Also, the panelists attended dinners at the Dining Room at Meadowood and Greystone, which some attendees resented for the exclusivity and perk like nature.

Also irritating was the panel on “Maximizing and Monetizing your New Media Wine Writing.” First of all, I think them term “new media” should be retired since online and multimedia writing isn’t exactly new. As for monetizing your online writing, good luck unless you’re willing to embrace the 168-hour work week and leave the life you need to live to write about anything intelligently in a shambles in the background. Also, Alder Yarrow of Vinography (self-described as a “highly regarded wine blog”) cited Gary Vaynerchuk as an example of this maximizing and monetizing thing (Yarrow explains his position in a comment below). In the session, I pointed out with less vehemence than I felt that Vaynerchuk, love him or loathe him, is a retailer first and foremost. His Wine Library TV vlog only features wines his store sells, and his expansion of his brand identity into books, television and motivational speaking is supported by his retail empire and the staff that keeps it running while he incessantly tweets and Ustreams. It’s worth noting that Yarrow’s blog brings in about $2,500 a month, but he also has a full-time job to support his wife and daughter in San Francisco. Steve Heimoff, California editor of Wine Enthusiast, noted that $2,500 was not enough to support most people in a major city. You can’t cellar wine properly in a refrigerator box.

Probably the biggest hoot of the symposium was the panel on Luxury Media. Here we learned that Haute Living, available in four markets at this point, pays its writers 50 cents a word, which doesn’t sound very haute to me. Departures (you get this if you have an Amex Platinum card) and Worth (you only get this if you pay $20 per issue on the newsstand or are rich enough to receive it) paid more than that, but the scale only went up after you had a track record with each publication.

Lastly on the Symposium hatoration front, two quick takes: Christian Miller of Full Glass Research did a PowerPoint presentation on “What Wine Drinkers Are Reading.” The data he presented lacked some basic information for any polling or statistical research such as sample size and margin for error. I also like to see sample questions since some questions suggest answers. Perhaps that can be included if they do this again.

Also, there was a session on “Blogs and Books.” This could have been more accurately titled “How to Catch Lightning in a Beer Bottle for Fun and Profit.” I love Molly Wizenberg to death, but her experience with her Orangette blog isn’t going to happen to the millions of food and wine bloggers wandering the electronic countryside.

Now for the good stuff. Louise Kiernan of the Chicago Tribune and Antonia Allegra, who founded the symposium, led a pair of useful writing exercises about a sense of place and writing about wine and food, respectively. Eric Asimov reiterated his belief that drinking, not tasting, is the way to go. He finds tasting notes tyrannical. Jeff Morgan’s session on ‘What Wine Writers Need to Know about Winemaking” could have been twice as long, and his discussion of reverse osmosis and watering back to reduce alcohol was enlightening. Morgan said he might give the second half of the talk next year, and it would be worth coming back for.

Also, Chris Howell of Cain Vineyards led a discussion with Gilles de Chambure of Meadowood on Bordeaux varietals that are blended into his Cain Five wine. With illustrations of grape placement on the property and the ability to taste samples of each varietal in the Cain Five, it was lovely to see how, as one attendee put it, “two and two can add up to five.”

My favorite session was led by Mark Krasnow on detecting wine flaws such as cork taint, brett and methoxypyrazine. Krasnow had adulterated a basic box Merlot with the flaws so we could smell them (we couldn’t taste since Krasnow pointed out he used industrial chemicals to doctor the wine and it wasn’t safe to drink). He also pointed out that some of the chemicals could add a character to wines so perhaps they may not always be flaws.

We also got to eat at the Culinary Institute of America Greystone. During one of those meals, Vic Motto of Global Wine Partners, laid out the statistics of consolidation of winery ownerships and distributors. The take home from his talk was that smaller wineries might not weather this downturn unless direct to consumer shipping becomes the norm since the remaining distributors can’t work with every winery.

Since we were staying at Meadowood, we also got to enjoy some wines from members of the Napa Valley Vintners Association. A hearty raise of the glass to them for opening the vaults. Among the highlights were a 1987 Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon along with older vintages from Trefethen and other landmark producers. I always hold out for the dessert wines. My favorite was the Frogenbeerenauslese from Frog’s Leap, which was nectar like and nearly made me moan aloud. The nightly postprandial tastings did renew my exuberance at finding a delightful wine and wanting to tell people about it, which may be the best thing the Symposium does every year.

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6 thoughts on “Symposium for Professional Wine Writers: the good and the bad

  1. Claudia,

    Thanks for the wrap up from your point of view. I want to be clear that I did not bring up Gary as an example of how to monetize at all, but as someone who has done a fabulous job of building relationships with social media. Gary’s success, like Molly’s, is not something to be hoped for by 99.999999% of the folks who decide to start a blog, and I would never hold him up (as he does himself, to a certain extent) as proof that “if you just follow your passion and work hard” you can make a living as a blogger.

  2. Thanks Alder for your comment. I’ve noted it in the post so people can get some discussion going. I’ve experienced Gary as Brandividual (word of the moment) going full throttle. I’m very sure the wine world doesn’t necessarily need more Garys. I’m looking for wine communicator who can tweak the model for his/her own ends. I encourage anyone else who was in attendance this year to weigh in with their thoughts.

  3. Thank you for posting your recap. I appreciate your frankness.

    My writing wasn’t up to snuff, and although I would love to have attended, I would need the help of a fellowship to do so. My writing has improved, and will continue to do so, and I’ll take a shot again for next year’s symposium. In spite of the bad you noted, some of which I followed on twitter, I think the value of the good is far greater – at least once.

    The bright line of print media ethics was both dimmed and blurred in the last year when it was revealed that writers for the most respected 100 point unimpeachable wine newsletter have been receiving flights, hotels and meals. Another wine media empire sells magazine space and radio coverage that is indistinguishable from editorial content. At the same time, the FTC has established rules with fines of up to $11,000 for wine bloggers who fail to disclose such potential conflicts of interest. It seems to me that the print media should attend an ethics presentation put on by the bloggers. Just sayin’.

    There is no monetizing my blog. I do accept samples, I would accept a wine junket. I try to write about everything I am sent, and I try to say something good in everything I write. I can see where I might choose to not write about a sample wine if I felt it was terrible. I have written an entire entry dedicated to my ethical stance on all of these issues; most wine writers for blogs have written about their personal stances regarding samples, junkets, and adding ads to their blog, few wine writers for print publications do so. While I don’t put ads on my blog, I think that getting a couple of dollars as a wine blogger for ads placed on your site is not much different than a newspaper that uses ad revenue to pay a wine writer for his work.

    I would love to attend the Symposium to taste great wines in the company of other wine writers, to write about wines in context, to have my writing evaluated by successful wine writers and receive constructive feedback. I would be thrilled to eat meals prepared by the Meadowood and the Culinary Institute of America, and drink otherwise undrinkable wines, and fall back into sheets approaching a million thread count.

    You had deep convictions deepened. I, too, would like to experience crystalizing moments, when I am set more firmly on the right path, or when the right path for me is more clearly illuminated.

    Thanks again for your great post.

  4. John,

    Let me make it clear that I wasn’t talking about the wine magazines when I mentioned magazines and newspapers. Also, even at general interest publications like newspapers and magazines, the bright line is dimming. For example, SF Chronicle accepts wine samples, and sells the wines they don’t write about to employees to raise money for the paper’s charity. Bon Appetit now takes junkets where they didn’t before. However, I’m not sure another discussion of our practices at this event adds any clarity. Also, as I note towards the end of the post, I did find a great deal of enjoyment in the experience. I also got some potential freelance work out of it. I encourage you to keep writing. The more you write the better you get. Thanks for your comments.

  5. I liked it and I bought some the next day. I also splurged and bought two bottles of the 2005 Cain Five. I suspect there’s going to be one helluva Open That Bottle Night in the near future! Thanks for checking in.

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